SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION II - DOUBLE DETERMINATENESS

Chapter X - TELEOLOGY


WE HAVE a confession to make. Many years ago - when we had begun to read biologist-philosophers and others in the hope of discovering whether Matter is the only reality, we soon met the word "teleology". We met it frequently and we did not know what it meant.

Our ignorance was a handicap. For it seemed that teleology had an important bearing on the question we were studying. Lamarck was a teleologist and Darwin was not one, we read somewhere; and also that Darwin by abolishing all teleological considerations from biological studies had placed this science on a sure materialistic foundation. One of the objections advanced by materialists against religion seemed, moreover, to be its teleological implications. In Hogben we met slighting reference to "the consistent teleologist". Biologists who prided themselves on their scientific outlook told us that, of course, they were not teleologists. Teleology and materialism, we gathered, were mutually incompatible. It was clearly necessary that we should seek to understand what teleology is.

We have made the effort, but we are still not clear as to what the word means to those who introduce it into philosophical arguments. A dictionary definition is: "The doctrine of final causes." But this does not help us. Those who repudiate teleology so indignantly certainly do not repudiate belief in causality. They insist on it. Nor do they seem to repudiate belief in any causes which might be called final.

Rather did it seem to us that teleology was taken as the belief that things serve a purpose. But this definition raises the question: "What things and what purpose?" Is a person a teleologist if he believes that some things serve a purpose and others do not?

If so we are all teleologists. For we know that the things which we ourselves make and do serve a purpose. We build a house in order to live in it; we purchase a railway ticket in order to reach a distant place; the purpose of the governor of a steam engine is to maintain constant speed. A human action to which we cannot ascribe a purpose is rare. We call it meaningless, proving that meaning and purpose are often given the same significance. Clearly, those who repudiate teleology cannot mean that nothing ever serves a purpose.

Nor can they possibly mean that there is purpose only in the things done by homo sapiens, and not in anything else. Few biologists would accord to man so unique a position in the scheme of things. Most of them have no doubt that the things done by all living substance serve a purpose. They say that the labyrinthine organ serves the purpose of enabling creatures to maintain their balance. They tell us the purpose of the roots and leaves of plants, of the gills of fish, of the endocrine glands, of the opaque dilatable iris which protects the retina of the eye, of the bright colours of flowers. They tell us why creatures secrete saliva at the prospect of food; why they have hair, scales or feathers; why nerves are electric conductors and bones are hollow.

For the above examples we have written down the first things about the organic world which came into our head. We could instead have opened any text-book on a biological subject at random and would have found on every page an example as good or better. Let a man glance at his hand and he will call to mind a dozen instances at least of the way living substance is put together so that a purpose may be served. The purposes to which the whole hand may be put are in themselves legion. Without this organ man could never have become a tool-using animal. The skin keeps the blood in and infectious germs out. It is puckered so that it may not become unduly stretched as the fingers close on each other. Its surface is covered with pores with the object of regulating the temperature of the body and eliminating waste products. The skin is provided with nerve endings, and these are most numerous where they can be most useful, namely at the finger tips. The thumb is opposed to the fingers so as to enable the hand to grasp things easily. The finger tips are protected by nails which grow forward from the base in the way which causes the most effective replacement of worn surface. We might go on to describe the purposeful design of the joints, the way blood vessels and capillaries are arranged with the object of bringing a blood supply to every part where it is needed, to the disposition of muscles where they may be most useful. A whole book could be written on the hand alone in which each paragraph brought some new reference to purpose. We were obliged to conclude that those who repudiate teleology do believe in the reality of purpose.

Our search for clarity continued. We put our difficulty to a biologist friend. He told us that it is teleology to say that a creature has a labyrinthine organ because of its need to maintain its balance, but that it is not teleology to say that it maintains its balance because it possesses a labyrinthine organ. This did not seem to change the fact that this organ serves a purpose. It is quite true that a creature lacking this device would fall over. And it is also true that, if it lacked any other necessary feature observed by biologists it would be hke the bread- and-butter fly in Alice which could never obtain its proper food. It would always die. When pressed our friend said that this would not happen. The creature would possess other features instead, of equal survival value, serving different but equally useful purposes. It became obvious to us that, whether they call themselves teleologists or not, biologists do beheve in a principle or law which requires that most if not all organic features shall serve a purpose.

It is true that some biologist-philosophers, such as Hogben, have declared their belief that someone will someday, somehow find means of abolishing the concept "purpose" from biological work altogether. But it is impossible to take such a belief seriously. Those whose enthusiasm for materialism leads them to such lengths of prophecy must invoke faith and hope, if not charity. They call upon science in vain. For when they think as scientists and not as philosophers they know that it is as impossible to explain the working of a living organ properly without mentioning its purpose as it is to explain the working of the governor of a steam engine without doing so. Behaviourists may avoid the word, but only by leaving out things which everyone knows to be true and significant. If a biologist does not know what the purpose of a distinctive piece of structure or behaviour is, he considers his understanding incomplete. He does not rest until a purpose has been discovered. And his confidence is but rarely misplaced. Only a few parts of the body appear to serve no purpose at all. Some are the vestigial remains of a past age and did serve a purpose in earlier generations, if Bradley is right there may also be a few which have never done so. For he says on page 166 of Patterns of Survival: "Certain long lines of fossil shell- fish show progressive development of characters which could have no imaginable survival value. Others show positively lethal trends." But even Bradley would not say that nothing has a survival value.

We are, therefore, convinced that most of those who deny that they are teleologists do not deny teleology because they, like Hogben, hope it may prove incompatible with a visionary and speculative scientific future. They mean that teleology is incompatible with the science of today. So the word must mean to them something different from behef in the reality of purpose.

Perhaps teleology means for them belief in purpose coupled with intention. This might explain why Lamarck is said to have been more teleological than Darwin. Lamarck thought, to give the most frequently quoted illustration, that short-necked ancestors of existing giraffes had an urge to eat twigs too high to be within their reach. As a result of this urge, according to Lamarck, successive generations of giraffes developed longer and longer necks, necks ever better suited to the purpose of obtaining the food most appropriate to the animals' digestion. Darwin, on the other hand, attributed the giraffe's long neck to the well-known principle of survival of the fittest.

Thus Lamarck introduced a certain amount of psychology into his evolutionary theory. He believed in purpose coupled with intention. Darwin proved that this was unnecessary. He believed in purpose only. He attributed no more to the giraffe's long neck than an engineer would to the governor of a steam engine. No one would suggest that it was the intention of this device to maintain constant speed. But we all know that this is its purpose.

Perhaps, on the other hand, those who repudiate teleology, consider that the word implies belief in a universal purpose only, or perhaps, belief in a good purpose.

A person is said to be a teleologist when he speaks of the wonderful economy of nature by which a balance is maintained between all things; when he declares that plants and animals are so distributed as to provide food for each other, so that none may become too predominant; when he tells us that carbon-dioxide released in the breath of animals is maintained in our atmosphere in just that concentration necessary for the existence of green-leaved plants. By this use of the word, a person is a teleologist if he beheves that the purpose of lungs is to provide carbon-dioxide for plants in general, but he is not a teleologist if he beheves that the purpose of lungs is to provide oxygen for their owner.

In the wider sense of the word, Darwin was certainly no teleologist, and neither for that matter was Lamarck. Most biologists agree that the purposes served by the things they find in the organic world are self-preservation and race-preservation, but that, with a few exceptions, it is not the purpose of one individual to be useful to other individuals. It is not even possible to say whether the purposes with which biology is concerned are good or bad.

The answer depends literally on the point of view. Were the cat able to think the matter out, it would reach the conclusion that its sharp claws serve an excellent purpose. But the mouse would not agree. It would consider this purpose a very bad one. So it is throughout the world of living things. Each individual might be called a "teleological unit" in which every detail aims at the continuance of the life of that individual and its race. But the purpose of the structure and behaviour of one individual is often in conflict with the purpose of the structure and behaviour of other individuals. The teleology with which biologists are concerned is strictly localized.

When we look for a generalized teleology, for a common purpose pervading the whole of the organic world, we seek in vain. It is impossible to define any purpose aimed at by the fact that cats eat mice and mice eat grain. Study of plants and animals obliges us to believe in a teleology for each individual, but it does not provide any evidence for a co-ordinating purpose common to all life. We will agree that we are justified in attributing to the organic world only the hmited sort of teleology which we must also attribute to the world of machinery, no more and no less. In short, any conclusions which we draw are to be based only on the facts which we have learnt from biologists.

There are quite enough of these to present materialism with an insuperable difficulty. For anything which serves a purpose is thereby doubly determinate. Besides conforming to the laws of physics and chemistry it must also meet this added requirement.

Did Darwin prove that there is no such added requirement? Not in the least. He knew full well that there is. Of course we know since Darwin's day more than we did before about the events which have led to such features as long necks and labyrinthine organs, though we do not yet know as much about these as we do about the events which have led to the governor of a steam engine. But our knowledge does not prove that these features are useless. Whether or not Darwin abolished teleology he certainly did not abolish behef in purpose. To explain a thing is not the same as to explain it away.

How the reality of purpose proves double determinateness is most easily appreciated in instances where it is most fully understood, namely in the world of machinery.

It is not enough that the structure and behaviour of a piece of machinery conform to the laws of physics and chemistry. This is already done by the engineer's raw materials. There are unlimited ways in which bits of wood and iron and copper could be put together were conformity to physical laws the only restriction imposed on them. But in addition every detail of the finished machine must serve a purpose. This is true although the purpose is certainly not a cosmic one, and it is true whether the purpose be good or bad. A machine is doubly determinate whether it be designed for man's service or his destruction.

Similarly we learn from text-books on biology that it is not enough for atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen to be put together in any way which may conform to the laws of physics and chemistry. Among all the possible ways which would meet this first requirement only those are permitted in the organic world which also meet the second requirement. If this does not happen the result is not even remotely like an organism, not even as much like one as the above-mentioned bread-and-butter fly in Alice.

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